- Augustine's Theology of Angels by Elizabeth Klein
Augustine's Theology of Angels
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018
Pp. x + 205. $99.99.
If Augustine said it, does that make it worthy of study? For many readers, particularly theologians, the answer is an emphatic "Of course!" They will find much to admire in Elizabeth Klein's Augustine's Theology of Angels, based on her 2016 Notre Dame dissertation. Students of Augustine's thoughts on angels can turn to succinct treatments in the Augustinian encyclopedias, such as Augustine through the Ages, ed. Fitzgerald et al. (1999), and to more general treatments of angels such as Jean Daniélou's classic Angels and Their Mission (1957) or Ellen Muehlberger's recent Angels in Late Ancient Christianity (2013), which examine discourse about angels among multiple patristic sources. Still, within the boundaries of Augustinian scholarship, Klein makes an original contribution that builds on past treatments of Augustine's angelology to plumb the complexity of Augustine's thinking on angels and its importance to his theology. But this scope reveals the central limitation of Klein's study. Only occasionally does the author refer to the angelologies of Augustine's contemporaries. Such an approach has an undeniable import for the study of Augustine, but historians like this reviewer may find themselves wishing Klein had more frequently placed Augustine in conversation with his near contemporaries to better establish the originality of Augustine's ideas about angels.
For example, Klein's opening chapter draws on Augustine's three Genesis commentaries as well as Confessions and City of God to consider Augustine's understanding of the role of angels in creation. Klein demonstrates that for Augustine the angels are created beings that do not themselves perform acts of creation. Not a surprising conclusion, but readers will find Klein's discussion of Augustinian texts and scholarship on this point useful. Of course, as Klein emphasizes, if angels are created beings, Augustine must resolve the question of when God created them, as the creation of angels is not mentioned in the opening chapters of Genesis. As Klein demonstrates, Augustine understood the creation of angels to be included in the creation of "light" in Genesis 1. However, readers could come away from Klein's discussion assuming that Augustine was the only theologian of the era to place the origin of angels on the first day or as part of "light." Other period sources suggest a more complex origin and reception of the idea. For example, Jubilees 2.2 places the creation of angels on the first day—although not explicitly as part of "light." The Hexameron Homilies of Ambrose (1.5) make angels [End Page 332] created beings, although Ambrose places their creation before the first day. Basil of Caesarea is perhaps closest to Augustine when he claims that angels existed in the first day's "light" in his Hexameron Homilies (2.5), although he does not state explicitly that the angels were created then. Ideas similar to Augustine's appear in the fifth- to eighth-century Priscilianist tractate on creation known as the Fragmentum Pragense, which explicitly states that the devil and his angels arose out of the darkness of the first day. Klein does not mention these sources, but she does assert that Augustine's incorporation of angels into the Genesis 1 creation story is "novel" (29). That novelty would be best demonstrated through a comparison of similar ideas. While Klein's work performs a valuable service tracing Augustine's ideas about angels within his own works, readers should be aware that his ideas took part in a wider discourse among Christian thinkers that intersected with Jewish and polytheist speculation about angels in interesting ways, a point that Klein occasionally gestures towards in later chapters but does not examine in detail.
Subsequent chapters of Klein's study advance the thesis that Augustine understood angels to have individual agency, and she examines the role and function of angels as agents of God with particular duties and in particular contexts, using as her sources the works of Augustine that most directly bear on specific spheres of angelic activity. Chapter Two utilizes City of God to...